The old proverb says that if you teach a man to fish, you will feed him for lifetime. But, when facing rapidly escalating climate change, complex food systems, omnipresent food advertising and slowing evolving food policies—simply teaching someone how to fish is no longer sufficient.
More than 7,500 miles apart in drastically different environments, two Department of Nutrition and Food Studies faculty members strive to teach individuals and communities sustainable food practices that address the many complex issues that shape our knowledge, attitudes and behaviors about food.
In the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Kerri LaCharite, PhD, teaches Mason students the importance of understanding “wicked problems” and the how factors like health, the environment, economics and food system are interconnected.
“This kind of systems thinking focuses students’ attention on the many ways relationships between factors may play out and acknowledges that root causes are results of other events, behaviors or feedback loops,” explains LaCharite.
However, LaCharite encourages students not to be overwhelmed when trying to make sustainable food choices. “There is so much that we [each] can do to help shape the food system. Eating less meat and dairy is a great start. You don’t need to be a vegan or vegetarian to make a difference. For some it might be doing a meatless meal once a week. For others eating a plant-based diet during the week and saving meat consumption for the weekend to be really savored, would be a great step,” said LaCharite. “On average a serving of processed red meat is 40 times the negative environmental impact than a serving of vegetables. Health would be an added benefit from eating less meat. Eating an additional serving of processed red meat raises the relative overall mortality rate 40%.”
In addition to helping students shape their individual knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, LaCharite wants students to understand the important role that policy plays in the food that is available to us and what we choose to eat. She points to the role that local, state and federal policy in the foods offered in our public schools and universities and children’s exposure to food advertising at a young age. She is actively involved in the Virginia Food Systems Leadership Institute, a 4VA collaborative of five Virginia institutions with a mission to harness the intellectual, human and economic capital of Virginia’s colleges and universities to foster the emerging local food economy in the Commonwealth.
Across the globe in rural Kenya, where more than 60% of families are food and nutrient insecure, Constance Gewa, PhD, studies the nutrition of mothers and children. To address the threat of malnutrition and pockets of increasing obesity rates in sub-Saharan Africa, Gewa teaches sustainable food-based strategies to improve food security and nutritional, health and developmental outcomes.
“We advise mothers worldwide to breastfeed exclusively for six months,” says Gewa, “But mothers in rural Kenya say ‘if we are hungry how are we to breastfeed our children?’ Food insecurity creates a fundamental challenge in achieving this goal.”
To help shape knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about food production, Gewa considers the interconnected factors that affect food and nutrient security in rural Kenyan villages. This includes cultural practices, policy and government’s role, crop yield and how to maximize it, and affordability and access to sustainable agriculture and nutritional practices. With this larger picture in mind, Gewa and colleagues have cofounded a program to teach mothers of young children climate sensitive agricultural practices and the best foods to select for their environment and soil.
In partnership with Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Health-Nutrition Unit, Gewa trains women from low-income households to become lead farmers in their villages, who then train others. “The women’s families own small parcels of land, often less than 0.25 acres, and they learn to sustainably prepare and farm the land. They learn to plan ahead of the first rainfall to plant their seeds and how and when to effectively use animal manure, prepare and preserve their produce. They grow traditional African vegetables, which are more tolerant to drier growing conditions as opposed to kale, beans, and maize, which are all very water intensive to grow,” says Gewa.
Gewa’s program is developed with a deep understanding of the culture, where vegetables are considered ‘women’s crop’. The program gives women the chance to be leaders in their communities, to build confidence and stature, and to be advisors to one another.
“We want to give them skills to be successful so they can feed themselves and their families and earn a living,” she explains.
In 2021, Gewa received a Mason curriculum impact grant to study to build a Master of Science concentration in engaging locally with food, energy, water and climate and is building the experiential component of that program now.
LaCharite and Gewa’s approach for teaching more sustainable food practices is the 21st century version of teaching a person how to fish in helping people understand the complex web of factors that are shaped by their decisions of what foods to grow and eat.
In fact, LaCharite further underscores the importance of teaching systems thinking: if every person actually followed the USDA’s dietary recommendations for fish consumption, “global wild-catch fish stocks would be depleted, there would be a greater ecological footprint from unsustainable practices in aquaculture, and a healthy food source would be lost or unstable.”